I choose my neighbors
Nearly ten years ago, I wrote some words about a family that, in hindsight, I knew very little about. Back then, my newly-married twenty-two year-old-self thought I knew it all, however. I thought I understood poverty and how to raise children and how to save people who looked nothing like me. And so I wrote a story about a family I thought I loved, even though I hadn’t yet learned what love means.
A few days ago, the family I wrote about found my words. Because when we write on the internet, it doesn’t care that we grow and change and learn a whole lot and fall flat on our behinds. Nope, your words and pictures and snap judgments and unchecked assumptions stay right where they are, hyperlinked forever for posterity.
In actuality, the words I wrote were not even half-truths. Not because I meant to deceive, but because I was writing about things I didn’t understand and about people I hadn’t taken the time to listen to and learn from.
When I listened to angry voicemails and read angry texts promising retribution and bleeding out hurt between every line, my immediate reaction was the dual sucker punches of fear and self-preservation. I wanted to call my friends and vent; surely they would reassure me that I was right. After all, I was only trying to help. I wanted to point out the bits of truth on which I had built my assumptions. I wanted to hide, to run away, to run to social media and share my wounds in hopes that enough likes and kind comments might ease the sting of it all.
Somehow, in a fit of wisdom beyond myself, I realized the only solution was to do the right thing, the thing I should have been doing all along. I closed my computer and turned off my phone and went to the people I hurt and repented to their face. It was painful and hard, and my rate of reconciliation currently hovers at fifty-percent, because some people aren’t ready to forgive me, which honestly I completely understand.
But I also learned something valuable, and I took down my blog as a result. The truth is that exactly two people noticed, and one of them was my mom, so it's always humbling to realize the ways the world doesn't spin on my axis. I went through every post I've ever written and tried my best to take down things that might have been less-than honoring. Because everything always leans more complicated than it first appears. Particularly when we wield our privilege as a sword to judge those who have walked bravely through the flames of pain and poverty and systemic injustice, the wounds that will land in our wake are never worth whatever good we think we might be accomplishing by exposing or “giving a voice to the voiceless.”
As time has marched by, and our projects and programs have been upended by the beautiful mess of real relationships on the margins, we grow more and more uncomfortable with "fundraising," particularly when sharing stories that are not our own. I have found myself watching a blinking cursor on a blank page when I try to write about people and systems and complex stories that remain well beyond my comprehension, even eleven years into this work that I still don’t even know what to call.
It’s quite easy to forgive myself with a shrug, shoulders raised and hurt let go in the name of good intentions or a “good heart,” but I think we might need to start taking more responsibility for our actions and mistakes. As someone who wields the weight of the dominant culture, I need to recognize what my neighbors have always known: the ability to claim “I was young and didn’t know any better” is in itself a heavy privilege. See, choosing our words and stories and selfies more carefully seems a task of utmost importance when I recognize the power I hold because the world at large is apt to take my words immediately as truth, as proof of something/anything regarding a culture and family and neighborhood I knew little about, and am still seeking desperately to understand in all its depth and richness.
The bravest, strongest people I know don’t deserve my words painting them as caricatures, no matter the loftiness of my intentions in the matter. And so from this point on, if I must choose between a well-funded-ministry/widely-read-words and loving well, I choose my neighbors.
Quite honestly, I'm not sure what this means for this blog, for my writing, for whatever. I will do my best to hold all my plans and ideas loosely, and to write more carefully and with cautious gentle dignity extended to each person I encounter online and in my family and in our neighborhood. I am hopeful that this new space I've put together will be one of gentle beauty and unfettered mercy, of grit and grace and all the things in-between that Jesus continues to teach us every single day on this grand adventure we get to call our lives.